Six Feet Under: The Complete First Season
R4 - Australia - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (20th June 2004).
The Show

Over the last few years HBO has been producing some excellent prime time television shows with a real edge, taking a risk in genres that many networks have said no to. Shows such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Curb your Enthusiasm all shows which where once given the cold shoulder by just about every network in America has found a home at HBO. These shows are now top rated award winners, you can also add Six Feet Under to that list.
There is a reason for the success of these shows, HBO gives the creative team exactly that, creative control over their projects. Team that with amazing writing and perfect casting and you have a winner.
Six Feet Under started out as the brainchild of Academy Award winning screenwriter Alan Ball (America Beauty). Six Feet Under is a very different show than what HBO had in it's line up, it dealt with issues that where rather morbid, death and the preparation of the dead for their funeral. Let's get this straight right away, this show is not a drama, sure it has dramatic elements to it but it's more a dark comedy than anything else.
As far as summarising the show imdb.com has included a good plot summary that encapuslates the show in one paragraph by saying that Six Feet Under is a darkly comical look at members of a dysfunctional Pasadena family that runs an independent funeral home. With the prodigal elder son returning home for the holidays to shattering news, the family must learn to deal with a death of their own, while figuring out how to go ahead with the business of the living. A funny and emotional look at a grieving American family...that just happens to be in the grief management business.
Alan Ball has created a rather unique show with characters that are so well defined it's hard to believe that these actors are playing a role, this shows both a love for the work and for the material they are given on a daily basis but also displays the genius that is the clever writing by the creative team.
The wonderful cast includes Peter Krause who plays the prodigal son Nate Fisher, a health food store manager from Seattle. He left home rather early to run away from both death and the business of death that their home represented. His brother David played wonderfully by the talented Michael C. Hall is the opposite of what Nate is. He is the bitter and repressed one who made the sacrifice of learning the family business while Nate travelled the world and avoided responsibility. David is also a closet homosexual who initially did not want his family to know about his sexuality, things of course change as be develops. The younger sister Clare is portrayed by actress Lauren Ambrose, Clare is not your typical teenage girl and has to deal with being the third wheel of the Fisher children.
The family is run by the controlling mother Ruth played by the gifted character actress Frances Conroy who having dealt with the loss of her husband, she now has to deal with moving on and living her life. Of course what would a dark comedy be without the darkness, dear old departed Dad and Husband Nathaniel Fisher Sr also makes several appears from beyond the grave played by Richard Jenkins.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Brenda, whom Nate meets at the airport and quickly get to know each other intimately. She eventually becomes Nate's girlfriend and is portrayed by the Australian actress Rachel Griffiths, who was awarded a Golden Globe for this series in 2002. Included in this ensemble cast is Brenda's bi-polar brother Billy played by the amazingly creepy Jeremy Sisto, we also have Mathew St. Patrick as Officer Keith Charles who at the beginning of the series is David's secret gay lover and last but not least Freddy Rodriguez as Federico Diaz the reconstruction artist who puts people's faces back together and makes them look presentable at viewings. This is certainly an impressive collection of actors to have on one series, but with rich material to work with it's no wonder why these talented individuals are involved with this show.
More on the show itself, each episode begins with the death of a person (who eventually is prepared by the Fisher's for their funeral at the end of the episode), each death is intertwined within the narrative that focuses on the family, mainly Nate and David's relationship and having to deal with the running of the funeral home. Each episode is as engaging as the last and culminates to a season finale that's both satisfying and leaves the viewer wanting more.
The show can be hard for some to watch as it features many elements that can be quite shocking to some. These include strong use of language, occasional drug use and sex scenes, this show is certainly for the mature audience.

This DVD box set contains all the 13 episodes from the first season that aired, which includes the pilot episode directed by series creator Alan Ball. The following is a breakdown of each episode per disc:

DISC ONE
Episode 1: Pilot
On Christmas Eve, Nathaniel Fisher, owner of the Fisher and Sons funeral home is killed when a bus hits his new hearse. The tragedy casts a pall on the homecoming of prodigal son Nate who has just met Brenda, a woman who might change his life. Instead of a restful vacation, Nate now has to deal with the fragile egos of his grieving mother Ruth and his resentful brother David as well as his younger sister Clare, who, having smoked crystal meth just before she heard the news, is in no state of mind to handle it.

Episode 2: The Will
Nate, who has no interest in the family business, now owns half of it, much to the chagrin of his brother David, who has devoted his life to it. Claire finds herself financially cornered by her father's last wishes. Kroehner Service Corp., a national funeral concern, is applying pressure on the family to sell or be put out of business. The Fisher family finds itself short-changed by the expensive funeral of a swindler, and may have to break the law to balance the books. Nate is surprised to find his name tattooed on Brenda's backside.

Episode 3: The Foot
Nate is close to persuading the family to sell the business to Kroehner Service Corp. Claire finds her private life the subject of school gossip and seeks revenge on her former boyfriend for his big mouth. The arrival of a baker's body in pieces calls for some special reconstructive work, but a missing part could prove a problem. Ruth, to alleviate the stress of mourning, tries to get her life on track at the track, with costly results.

DISC TWO
Episode 4: Familiar
The murder of Paco, a Mexican gang member, finds the Fishers - and their employee Rico - walking a fine line between the deceased's family and the gang leader, powerful. The police are investigating a mysterious fire at a Kroehner-owned property across the street, and all fingers point to Claire. Nate's mother walks in at a sensitive moment when Nate's girlfriend Brenda comes to dinner. David, inspired by the late Paco, stands up for his rights.

Episode 5: An Open Book
The sudden death of a porn star brings new business to the Fisher Family, and all sorts of challenges, including the rebalancing of an off-kilter breast enhancement. In an effort to reach out to her daughter, Ruth invites Claire to meet their cousins and experience a different kind of mother/daughter relationship. Nate gets to meet the rest of Brenda's intense family at a dinner with her psychiatrist parents and has a near-nude run-in with her brother Billy. David is invited to become deacon at the family church, but this creates new tensions with Keith.

Episode 6: The Room
David dives into his new role as church deacon and devotes himself to feeding the poor, while fending off the advances of a voracious divorcee. Ruth finds herself the centre of attention for both her ex-lover, Hiram, and an ardent Russian florist, Nikolai. Nate discovers his fathers' secret life hidden deep in the accounting books. Claire meets Brenda's brother Billy, and discovers she has a lot to learn about men.

Episode 7: Brotherhood
When a soldier dies of Gulf War Syndrome, his brother rejects an army funeral, but Nate finds himself on the side of the army. Ruth invites her lover to dinner with the family and also decides to kick-start her life by taking a job with the Russian florist. David finds himself caught up in church politics when his vote is called for in the case of a progressive young associate priest. Nate and Brenda plan their first weekend away, but her devoted brother Billy has other ideas.

DISC THREE
Episode 8: Crossroads
It's a dry season in the funeral business for the Fisher family, and Rico takes the opportunity to test his skills and his income by freelancing with Kroehner. Business is so slow that Nate and David rent out their slumber room to a seniors' dance class, which has an unexpected bonus for David. Claire finds herself lost without a compass, metaphorically and literally. Ruth finds herself torn between the comfort that Hiram offers her and the spirit of adventure she finds in Nikolai.

Episode 9: Life's Too Short
When Gabriel's 6 year-old brother dies of a self-inflicted shotgun wound, Claire finds herself softening towards her ex-boyfriend. David hits the dance clubs with his new lover and discovers the joys of ecstasy - as does his mother, Ruth. Brenda comes up with a scheme to improve Nate's management abilities by taking a whirlwind tour of some rival funeral homes.

Episode 10: The New Person
The Fishers need to replace Rico and they hire the outstanding, but unfortunately outspoken, Amanda. Brenda and Nate's relationship faces a mounting crisis when her brother Billy exhibits an outrageous portrait of the unsuspecting Nate. Off his "meds" one time too many, Billy may need more restrictive care. David orchestrates a meeting with his ex-boyfriend Keith, and comes on surprisingly strong. Claire finds herself enmeshed in a deep relationship with Gabe, but it may be shallower than she thinks.

DISC FOUR
Episode 11: The Trip
David takes a break from a series of casual sex relationships - but not for long - to attend a funeral directors' conference in Las Vegas where he will speak on the role of the independents, a challenge, as he expects to face the suits from Kroehner. Joined by Nate and Brenda, who is trying to avoid her increasingly psychotic brother Billy, the trip promises to be exciting, fun-filled and an "arresting" experience for one of them. Rico has rejoined the firm and faces a tough emotional challenge with his first client. Ruth digs deep to make her flower arranging less funereal. Claire finds out why Gabe has disappeared.

Episode 12: A Private Life
The homophobic killing of a young man forces David to re-examine his lifestyle and his family relationships. Brenda is trying her best to break from her brother Billy, who is getting more and more out of control. She can't commit to committing him, but she may have to before long. Nate has a hard time just being there for her, and finds himself locked out of her life as well. Claire is finding new ways of comforting Gabe.

Episode 13: Knock, Knock
When her Aunt Lilian dies, Tracy, David's biggest fan, turns to the Fisher family for the arrangements. They soon discover that as a party planner, Tracy is far from the life of the party. Brenda's relationship with Billy takes a turn for the worse shortly before she does, putting both her life and Nate's in jeopardy. David is forced to take a stand at church over his sexuality. Claire doesn't realise how far out of control Gabe is getting. Ruth comes to a fork on her road to romance and must choose between Hiram and Nikolai. Rico brings new life into the old home of Fisher and Sons.

Video

Presented in the show's original airing format of 1.33:1 (full screen), The transfer on each episode is very clear all levels of detail from foreground to subtle background details can be seen. I could not detect any major flaws apart from minor aliasing on a few episodes, which was not a big problem anyway. Colours are luminous and rich, especially skin tones are correctly rendered. Overall these episodes have been given a very good treatment on DVD.

Audio

This DVD set comes with only one soundtrack an English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. While most Television shows broadcast in 2.0 Stereo or in some cases 2.0 Surround there are a few shows that air in 5.1, Six Feet Under was one of those shows in the HBO line-up that aired in 5.1 (also known as circle-surround) and Warner Brothers have provided us with the original 5.1 tracks for each episode.
Although the sound transfer is very clean and distortion free, dialogue always came out clear, apart from that there doesn't seem to be a lot of surround activity. The rear speakers are not often utilized, there have been instances where the surrounds have been be critical, such as Nathaniel Sr's car accident in the Pilot episode and whenever we hear the score or some musical cues the surrounds tend to kick in. It would have been nice to involve the surrounds a lot more, but what we get is sufficient.
There have been previous reports of some soundtrack issues on Episode 12 at chapter 2, where the sound drops out and muffles the dialogue for a short time. I did not come across this problem when viewing this episode.
Each episode also features subtitles in both English and English for the hearing impaired.

Extras

This four disc set has a few nice extras bundled with it, spread across the four discs they include 2 audio commentaries, a deleted scene, 2 featurettes, cast & crew biographies, an episode index, awards & nominations notes, soundtrack highlights as well as some DVD-ROM extras and a booklet with episode notes. I'll take a look at each extra on a per disc basis much like the episode breakdown above.

DISC ONE
The first extra on disc one is an insightful commentary on the Pilot episode with series creator and writer/director of that episode Alan Ball. He talks mainly about the wonderful cast and sheds some light on the creation of the show. Ball provides a rather informative track in his 50+ minutes. It would have been nice to include some of the cast in the commentary but Ball manages to fill the time nicely and is never boring.

Following that we get a deleted scene from the Pilot episode. This scene is a transition scene and takes place in the car with Nate and sister Clare while they are in the way to the grocery store. While this is a nice scene I can see why Ball decided to cut it out as it was unnecessary and was most likely trimmed for time reasons. You also have the option of viewing this scene with two optional commentaries by Ball, the reason why there are two tracks is that he has quite a lot to say in the short time given therefore the need to split the track.

Next we have a great featurette running almost 16 minutes in length entitled Under the Main Titles this is an exploration of how the artfully designed title sequence was created. For the most part it's a pat on the back appreciation of the company responsible for the titles, but soon after it gets into real detail on how it was pieced together along with Thomas Newman's haunting and magnificent theme he composed for the show.

Rounding out the extras are in-depth cast and crew biographies for Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Rachel Griffiths, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Mathew St. Patrick, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Sisto, Joanna Cassidy, Robert Foxworth, Eric Balfour, Alan Ball and Alan Poul.

Additionally we get an episode index for all 13 episodes that feature a brief synopsis. To conclude the extras on disc one we are given some DVD-ROM features which include a link to the HBO website, access to the Six Feet Under page which includes articles on the show, sneak peeks, a bulletin board, a trivia game and links to purchase show inspired merchandise like T-shirts and posters, etc.

DISC TWO
Features the cast and crew biographies, episode index and DVD-ROM content as seen on disc one.

DISC THREE
Same as disc two.

DISC FOUR
We begin with another featurette, this time about the show, its characters, impact, creative process, etc. entitled Behind-the-Scenes this featurette runs almost 22 minutes in length and is structured very much like a standard EPK featurette. The cast are interviewed and is edited with scenes from the show, although it's not stated they talk about the plot of season two and the changes their characters go through. The featurette is quite informative at times, the only drawback I found was that the music used throughout the featurette was a little upbeat and did not match the genre too well.

The second commentary is also found on this disc, on the last episode Knock, Knock with creator and writer/director of that episode Alan Ball. He talks more about the series and his thoughts on the final episode, again this track is much like the first in that it is informative and insightful.

Like each other disc we also get the same cast and crew biographies, episode index and DVD-ROM contents. However there are two other extras included, a series of notes outlining the awards and nominations the show received for it's first season and two tracks from the soundtrack the Six Feet Under title theme as well as a remix of the theme by Kid Loco entitled Kid Loco: Gravebeat Mix these two are selectable from a menu screen that's formatted like an ad for the soundtrack.

In addition to all these extras, when you select an episode to play from the main menu, you are taken to a sub-menu with chapter stops. Within the sub-menu you can also view the Previously On and Next On bookends that preceeded and followed the episode when it first aired.

To cap it all off we get a 12-page booklet with episode synopsis.

While the extras are a welcomed addition, I didn't see much sense in repeating the text based or ROM based extras onto each disc, having them once would have been enough. It would also have been nice to have a longer more in-depth look at the creation of the series. On the up side the two commentaries provided by Ball and the title creation featurette are excellent additions to this DVD set.

Overall

Six Feet Under is one unique show that effortlessly balances dramatic acting with a dark sense of humour. The strong writing style and characterisations come together nicely for what has become a quality programme. While the extras are a little thin, what we get is satisfactory.
If you haven't seen the show before I'd urge you to check it out, perhaps a rental first to see what you are jumping into, as this show is not for everybody. For fans of the show this should be a no brainer.

The Show: A Video: A Audio: B Extras: C+ Overall: B+

 


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